From Drought to Air Quality, Climate Change Often Impacts Minorities More | Commentary

Posted April 27, 2015 at 4:00am

Our country has made a lot of environmental progress since the first Earth Day in 1970. We’ve passed bedrock environmental protections — such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act — that continue to protect human and wildlife health. Unfortunately, we haven’t responded to emerging threats such as climate change and the ongoing California drought, and we’re running out of time.

By some estimates, much of the West is currently experiencing its worst drought in more than 1,200 years. The Colorado River Basin, the lifeblood of the Southwest and the water supplier for 40 million people across seven states and parts of Mexico, is currently in its 15th straight year of drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly the entire state of California is under “extreme” drought conditions. Last year went down as one of California’s driest in recorded history.

It came to light last month that, despite these dire conditions, Nestlé Waters North America has spent almost three decades bottling and selling tens of millions of gallons of water each year from San Bernardino National Forest in California on an expired permit. Needless to say, this should have been caught a long time ago. Nestlé profits aren’t nearly as important as making sure tens of millions of people don’t lose a vital water source.

We don’t just need improved oversight — we need better and more comprehensive management of our nation’s water supplies. In a positive first step, the U.S. Forest Service has recently started looking at ways to work with states to improve oversight of our water resources. The Forest Service is charged with managing nearly 200 million acres of federal lands that include the headwaters and recharge areas for many of the nation’s aquifers and streams. These sources provide drinking water for approximately 66 million people in 33 states.

Yet the Forest Service still lacks a comprehensive set of policies to manage water resources in many areas, including groundwater, which makes up about half of the flow in our nation’s small and medium streams. We need a comprehensive strategy and set of policies to manage our nation’s water. Without sustainable water resources — which we won’t have without sustainable water policies — not much else is possible.

This drought is no accident. As a Stanford University report noted in March, high temperature and low precipitation overlap more frequently because of climate change and the amount of carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere.

When you get a string of high-temperature, low-precipitation years, you get a drought. Its persistence has economic, as well as human health implications: Everything from ski resorts to hydroelectric dams rely on California snowpack. If states don’t plan ahead, their energy supply could be just as threatened as their water availability.

The drought is just one of many climate change impacts we’re seeing around the country. Air quality is suffering. According to a 2012 NAACP report, 71 percent of African-Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of the white population. Just as seriously, according to a 2014 study by the Environmental Defense Fund, Latinos are three times more likely to die from asthma than other racial or ethnic groups in the United States, and Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than non-Latino whites. It’s not too much to say air pollution has become a nearly community-wide threat to American Latinos.

Climate change makes our air quality worse, especially as hotter, drier days persist in areas — such as valleys all over the West — where air pollution collects.

Earth Day is about stepping back for a moment and looking at the Earth the way we would look at a home. Is it clean? Is it stable? Is its foundation strong? As we remember what makes this planet a special place to live, we also need to remember what can go wrong if we’re not careful. Right now, we’re not being careful with our water and air resources. For the people I represent in Southern Arizona and for tens of millions of others, that means we’re not being careful with our own lives. And we can’t let that continue.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., is the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.